Lisa Zeno Churgin, has an extensive filmography, including Pete’s Dragon, Pitch Perfect, House of Sand and Fog, Cider House Rules – for which she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing in 1999 – and Dead Man Walking. Her early work was done cutting on film, and she switched to Avid in the mid-1990s. Her most recent film, The Old Man & the Gun, was cut on Adobe Premiere. We spent time discussing NLEs, learning new things and, of course, dive deep into the craft of editing.
HULLFISH: So you cut this in Premiere, correct?
CHURGIN: I did. It’s been fun because the next job I did was on Avid. It was scary: the thought of going back to Avid and I’ve been working most recently again to Premiere and it was scary to come back to Premiere. It’s a little bit like riding a bicycle. Moving back to Premiere probably took me about two days and moving back to Avid took probably a day, since I’ve been on Avid since 1995.
HULLFISH: I just did the exact same thing: worked on an Avid project and then switched over for a Premiere feature and I’m back on Avid.
CHURGIN: How did you learn Premiere?
HULLFISH: I’ve been I’ve been on Avid since 1992 and I started on Premiere around 2000.
CHURGIN: Were you self-taught and did you know Final Cut?
HULLFISH: Self-taught on FCP and Premiere. I did some Lynda courses and read a couple of books on each of them. I took the Avid 101 class back in 1992, but it’s changed a LOT since then.
At this point, I’ve cut one feature in Final Cut, two features in Premiere and four features in Avid. But most of my Avid time was on documentaries, TV spots and on The Oprah Winfrey Show for a decade.
I think learning NLEs is kind of like learning a language. You understand the basic communication and storytelling at a root level, and you just need to switch between one language and another. But my first language is Avid. You can get good at another language — fluent — but you might always have an accent or a preference for communication.
CHURGIN: Right. There are ways in which I force Premiere to work like Avid and then there are ways I try to get Avid to work like Premiere.
HULLFISH: Before we both spend too much time on the technical side, let’s talk about craft. Tell me a little bit about the movie, The Old Man & the Gun. What did you feel the story was and what did that mean for your edit choices?
CHURGIN: Robert Redford plays a character named Forrest Tucker: a real-life character who was arrested 17 times and escaped 16 times, starting at the age of 13. We meet up with him as he’s committing a robbery and then in order to evade the police he stops and helps Sissy Spacek whose truck has stopped working on the side of the road and so then we’re introduced to our second character. It’s a depiction of this man’s life — a lifelong criminal who loves what he does. And so it’s a bit more of a character study than anything else. It’s not overly plot-driven.
It’s character-driven and that is very much one of my favorite things. We do meet Casey Affleck who’s in a bank, while it is being robbed by Forrest Tucker and his Over-the-Hill Gang — as they come to be known: Tom Waits and Danny Glover — and he is a cop in the robbery division and ultimately figures out that Forrest has been committing these robberies all over the country. And then the case gets taken away from him but he is so fascinated by this thing that he continues to follow it and it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game, but — again — not overly plot-driven. There’s also Sissy Spacek’s character, in terms of a human interest semi-love interest.
Robert Redford is wonderful. He’s absolutely wonderful. One of the things that I really loved about it was the ability to work with such great actors. That’s something that fascinates me: always has, always will. It’s the thing that I love the most.
HULLFISH: I just talked to Carol Littleton over the weekend and she cut Robert in A Walk in the Woods. I’m really interested in two things that you mentioned. One of them is: you mentioned that it’s more character-driven than plot-driven. What kind of choices does that drive as you’re working through the material: to know that character is more important than plot?
CHURGIN: You’ve got to pick the right pieces because that’s what you have to entertain your audience. After the initial robbery, the movie opens with a six-minute dialogue scene. It’s fun. There’s a bit of a chase thing and really cool jazz score and then there’s this semi-silly scene in the car with Sissy and Bob. And then they sit in this coffee shop and they are finding out about each other and you find out later that he actually reveals exactly who and what he is that he: that he’s a bank robber. He writes it down and tells her that but she doesn’t believe him. So it’s just a really wonderful interchange between them.
The challenge for David (director, David Lowery) was that it was a long scene and the solution was in how he chose to break it up. He had experience working with Bob on Pete’s Dragon, so we kind of knew how to set up the because he did something similar in that movie. Those kinds of scenes are all about making the right choices and rhythms, pauses. You use your own internal rhythm and you hope that other people go along with that rhythm. It was a daunting scene to cut but I really felt wonderfully accomplished. I sent it off to David with a text that just said, “Phew! Finished!”
HULLFISH: Was one of the challenges just in keeping a six-minute dialogue scene interesting?
CHURGIN: Yes, and the answer is in the pacing. The structure of the scene basically was similar to my first cut, and it just got cut down. David loved some interesting shots and so there’s one of those that we made longer. Talking heads scenes are challenging in that it is based on the rhythm of the words that they say and how long you stay on it; who you go to; what reaction shots you use; when you use the reaction shots; how much you cut back. The goal is always to do as little cutting as possible and let the scene speak for itself, but then there’s always something in the power of a cut. I’m constantly learning that. When you switch something up it’s like, “Oh, that is SO much more effective that way.” Even at this point in my career, I’m constantly being surprised by the power of a cut: where you do it; how you do it; when you do it.
HULLFISH: Were you able to mold the performances or were you just trying to stay out of the way of two great performers?
CHURGIN: There was a lot of material to sort through. In this particular scene, when you’re sitting and you have the actors captive, then it’s easy to shoot a lot of film — and we were shooting on film. I actually don’t think that if this had been shot digitally that David would have shot anymore.
HULLFISH: It’s interesting to talk to you about editing Robert Redford right after I spoke to Carol Littleton about cutting him in Walk in the Woods.
CHURGIN: Carol is my mentor, and I’ve worked for her and been friends with her for a long time.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that Sissy Spacek’s plotline comes in and out of the movie. Talk to me a little bit about any structural changes that perhaps had to happen so that you didn’t feel like you were away from her too long or was the script pretty close?
CHURGIN: David purposely put Bob in the same suit in every scene. His shirt and tie might have changed, but you were never going to notice that. And as a result, we had more flexibility to move scenes around than I have ever had on any film I’ve ever worked on. And we did move lots and lots of things around constantly. Oftentimes would change them and then they would go back to the original script was and David would be really pleased that that had happened. But then we’d move it again. We moved scenes around all the time in every configuration. It was fascinating.
As written, there was this one big long section of Forrest going to Jewel’s (Spacek’s character) ranch and these three long dialogue scenes that we most definitely had to break up and we were able to. That decision to put him in the same costume gave us flexibility. There was some stuff that happens at the end that we stopped being able to. But for reels 2 3 4 and 5 there was just constant movement.
HULLFISH: What were the reasons to make those structural changes?
CHURGIN: In terms of some of the chase, you wanted to make sure that you were really following each story in terms of Forrest and his gang; Casey’s chasing of Forrest; and when you parsed out certain pieces of information; and the presence of Sissy, because she’s very much a presence at the end, so you didn’t want to go long in the middle without her. He meets her in reel one. You wanted to make sure that there was a little bit of her spaced throughout so that you don’t lose the thread.
Even the best intentions as you’re writing the script — until it’s actually there as a living, breathing thing — you don’t really know. You don’t know the powers that certain scenes are going to have and how much information you need. Less is more. I can’t remember what the first cut was length-wise, but it was not an overly-long movie. We were really trying to cut it down and make it lean and mean.
HULLFISH: The idea of parsing out information is always interesting to me and something that obviously has to happen right? I’m just trying to think of some of the information that might need to be parsed and how the audience needs to kind of be led through the story.
CHURGIN: One of the things is how Casey figures out who this gang is and what he does with the information. Keith Carradine has a very small scene in the final version of the movie, but there were a lot more scenes with him. He’s the police captain. But we learned that we didn’t need to be at the police station. We needed to stay more with Casey’s character. So that’s a good example. Any experienced film person will look at the film and figure out that Keith’s character was obviously cut way down in the movie because he’s in it for such a short period of time. So less is more.
HULLFISH: Less is more.
CHURGIN: As Carol says: pictures speak louder than words.
CHURGIN: Carol taught me that, and I quote her all the time.
HULLFISH: She had so much great wisdom to impart. I loved talking to her.
CHURGIN: Oh my goodness. She’s amazing.
HULLFISH: And she speaks so articulately about her craft. That interview will get posted in a few weeks when her HBO movie, My Dinner with Herve comes out Oct. 20th.
CHURGIN: She has a very rigorous approach and she’s very verbal about it. I always say that the hardest thing is how to start a scene. That’s what I spend the longest time on. I also go cut to cut. I review the footage. In today’s world sometimes you don’t have enough time to actually watch all of the dailies. I totally commend and applaud editors who can, but when you have massive amounts of film and they keep rolling, keep rolling, keep rolling, I always feel it’s best to really try to get the scene cut and then start revising — saying, “OK, I can find a better performance for that piece.”
On a feature, you have the luxury of knowing that by the time you have finished cutting that feature you will have examined every single piece of footage over and over again and will feel that you have got all the great pieces, even if that doesn’t happen the first time around.
HULLFISH: Yeah. I’m the same way. But one of the reasons why I am so interested in these interviews is that there’s a variety of ways to work. And there are people who will not cut until they’ve closely examined everything. I’m one of those people that’s like you. I like to find the structure of the scene and then the dailies reveal more about themselves once you know what the structure is.
CHURGIN: Right. What really needs to be highlighted. I’ve had the opportunity to teach a class at the union and it was very interesting seeing young editors trying to approach a scene and figure out what the important parts are. Obviously, I watch at least one take of every set up so I know what my choices are in terms of how the scene has been staged. The hardest part is figuring out exactly how to start it. Do you start tight? Do you start wide?
Getting to the right moments, those are the things to me that are uniquely interesting and most important. And my first pass I tend to overcut in terms of carving out as many moments as I can, knowing that they will be streamlined. It’s sort of an abundance of riches. I want to highlight that and I want to highlight that and then you realize like oh no this needs to be cut down, so I will often give alternate versions to my director. I save everything that I feel is legitimate and put it in a folder called “stuff”
HULLFISH: I think everyone’s got a folder called “Stuff” or “Junk in the Trunk.”.
CHURGIN: I also have a little homage to my film days, so I always have a KEM roll. A stringout of all of the clips that I can scroll through.
HULLFISH: I do the same thing and I call it the same thing.
CHURGIN: We all do! And we all came up with it by ourselves.
HULLFISH: So before you got on Avid in 1995, you had cut many films, so did you have a preferred machine or methodology for cutting film?
CHURGIN: I was what you call a KEM Baby. My first feature, The Warrior, as an assistant, was on a KEM and that is the way I’ve learned. I was working in New York and they did not have KEMs in New York. Everybody cut exclusively on a Moviola for features in New York. So when a California editor came and hired New York assistants, nobody really knew how to make KEM rolls or how to organize the film properly for a KEM. So I had the opportunity to see every mistake made in terms of organization on that movie. That movie was it was such a learning experience.
My preference as an editor cutting on a KEM was to have an 8 plate and a Junior (KEM). I did cut a couple of freebies on a Moviola as an assistant editor. I worked exclusively with the Moviola in terms of cutting sound effects and things like that. I started cutting in 1989, so I did cut a number of features on film. And there’s even a credit at the end of Dead Man Walking that Tim Robbins put in there without me knowing that said, “This film was cut on old-fashioned machines.” He was really funny.
HULLFISH: I was just reading Spike Lee’s book about cutting She’s Gotta Have It and he mentioned he cut on a Steenbeck in New York.
CHURGIN: New York editors did. Susan E. Morse, who worked for Woody Allen for 20 years, used a Steenbeck. That was the machine of choice in New York. Thelma had a KEM in New York but there were very few of them in New York. But when I was working on The Warrior — that was 1978 79 — there were very few KEMs in New York.
HULLFISH: What are some of the working methods or some of the disciplines that you brought with you from film to digital editing that still serve you today?
CHURGIN: I think my approach is still the same in terms of going cut by cut starting at the beginning and not having an overall preconceived plan. Intuitively feeling my way through the scene. That actually hasn’t really changed.
HULLFISH: I’ve been on Avid for so long and I never cut on film. One of the things I feel like I do more than an experienced film editor is trimming and reviewing the trim. In film you just couldn’t trim a couple of frames then decide you want to put back a frame and try that. It was too destructive to the workprint and labor intensive.
CHURGIN: Another thing was that when you were on film and you were rolling down, there were things that you remembered because you saw it go by. Now that, on Avid, because you just click to a place on the shot or click on a take, you don’t get to see the film as much, even if you were rolling down at high speed on your machine, you felt it. You were absorbing it. Each type of editing has its own thing. I remember giving an assistant a film to cut, back when I was cutting on film and we had to order reprints. She was very thorough. She made so many edits, but they couldn’t go through the machine anymore because there were splices everywhere.
HULLFISH: One of the things that you didn’t have the ability to do back on film was have the use of multiple tracks — dozens of tracks — of audio for music and ambiance and SFX. What’s your approach or when do you start putting temp in if at all depending on the direction?
CHURGIN: On Old Man & the Gun we did not have music till the composer started feeding us pieces, which was long into the process. We showed it to FOX Searchlight and all the producers without music. I thought it was very courageous of David to do that, but he really did not want to have temp love. And it forced us to find the internal rhythm in a much more rigorous kind of way because — as you know — music can gloss over all sorts of problems and issues but you are forced, if you are relying just on sound effects and dialogue, to really hone your scenes in a more rigorous way.
CHURGIN: I highly recommend it. I know it can’t happen with a lot of people. They need the whole Magilla. I would start probably halfway through the process of putting music on top of some scenes. I feel it should be naked at the beginning. It should just be the most basic elements. I send it to the director with only dialogue and possibly one or two crucial sound effects. I think time can be so much better spent — especially during shooting — really trying to hone the performances and really figure out the scenes and how they’re working and get that information to the director as quickly as possible. And then there gets to be a certain point when you start having your assistant put more sound effects in because you don’t want to be scrambling at the end. And there’s a certain point where it seems OK to start experimenting and see what temp tracks could possibly be used. And then the full encore press at the very end as you’re getting ready for your editor’s cut.
But the thing that was interesting with David — even on Pete’s Dragon — he did not want to have music in the first time he saw it. But on Pete’s Dragon, we did end up having a very incredible temp because we had to show it to the studio. You have to preview. We were on that film for 18 months and we definitely ended up with a temp score on that one. For Old Man there was a montage that had a song on it from the very beginning, but that was it. I had absolutely no problem working that way. I discussed it with other editors and they were surprised and felt that it would be difficult for them to work that way. As you know, there are many editors and producers who would never accept that but David was really adamant about it and they were respectful of that.
HULLFISH: I’ve done a couple of films with no temp. Usually just for budgetary reasons of cutting very quickly, instead of artistic ones, for me. It depends on how many screenings you have to have with an audience and whether the director can handle it.
CHURGIN: Right. When you have to show it, you have to have something. By the time we previewed, we had music from the composer. It wasn’t the full score, but there was music.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about your experience in Premiere.
CHURGIN: David asked me to cut Pete’s Dragon in Premiere. David Fincher had done Gone Girl in Premiere. He’s a Final Cut baby. David Lowery has been making movies since he was 8. And he’s actually made his living as an editor. When you live in Dallas you have to be a jack of all trades. So he asked me if I would do this in Premiere. I did a little bit of research especially about visual effects and workflow and really came to understand that it was a little too soon for Pete’s Dragon (2016). So I said to him, if we work together again, which I hope we do, I will learn Premiere. So that’s what I did.
He spoke to Adobe and they offered to supply me with a subscription. But more importantly what they did is they provided a tutor for me because I had taken over a film that was on Final Cut. So, at one point I had learned Final Cut. But it had been a long time. I was very nervous, but once I started working with the tutor — we did it in shorter sessions so that my brain didn’t get totally overloaded — it was really fun.
HULLFISH: I can totally relate to that when learning or teaching new software.
CHURGIN: You know that brain overload. So that was really great. And then I hired an assistant who was very experienced on Premiere. He actually had never worked Avid and I needed an assistant who lived in Texas because I knew that we were going to be going to Dallas. So Mike Melendi — who was based in Austin but his family was from Dallas — so it was an easy move for him. He helped me at the beginning. I sort of felt like Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory when he goes over and says, “Penny Penny Penny.” I was like “Oh Mike, Oh Mike, Oh Mike.” And he was very patient and we had lots of laughs.
Once you know JKL, you’re kind of OK. One of the things that my tutor recommended to me was that I really make my own keyboard. In Premiere, you can convert it to the Avid keyboard, but you are short-changing yourself with some of the keystrokes. So I got a WASD gaming keyboard and programmed it, color-coded it. So it’s a real combination of Avid and Premiere.
And when I went back to Avid I was able to remember the keyboard but I did reprogram some things based on my Premiere keyboard to make it more efficient. I try to have all the important keystrokes close to my left hand. Plus you get to pick the type of touch the keys have and the sound they make. You can have the icons printed on the keys.
My tutor helped me figure a lot of this out and you send the company a template and they print the keys with what you want.
HULLFISH: Who was your Premiere tutor?
CHURGIN: Christine Steele.
HULLFISH: I’ve heard her name before as a guru-level instructor, but have never met her.
CHURGIN: She was at Pixar for a long time, then moved to LA and started getting more into live action. She knows all these NLEs and one of her many talents is being an editing computer instructor so she can teach people Avid and Premiere and I guess Final Cut.
HULLFISH: So you were tutored and had a good assistant who was familiar with Premiere. Tell me about your experience and how you felt it went. Were you using any special hardware that made the experience good, other than the WASD keyboard?
CHURGIN: It’s interesting on this most recent project, instead of relying on 32 undos, I’ve been using my undo history a lot more. I use icon view in my bins. I don’t do list view. Premiere is on the verge of having free-form bin’s which to me is a huge deal. I’m not so much into stacking lots of things. Sometimes if I want to have different choices, but that’s not the way I cut — by moving clips around. I definitely do it in Premiere more than I do it in Avid. And I still rely on trim mode a tremendous amount. Christine taught me to make my locator arrow really, really big which means when you try to put your ripple or roll trim onto your clip it actually sticks a lot better because it’s much bigger and you don’t have to do as much finessing. I’ve always used a stylus. I’ve tried mice and trackballs and then I finally switch to a stylus, but I didn’t have a working stylus on this show. Premiere prefers a mouse.
HULLFISH: For Avid — and I could do it on Premier I’m sure — I’ve started using the Razer Naga gaming mouse that has 17 buttons on the mouse. A lot of things that I used to do with my left hand on the keyboard, I can now do with just the mouse in my right hand. Plus it gave me great “dad cred” with my son. Eddie Hamilton uses the same mouse and got me to try it. Looking at that WASD keyboard, that might be my next purchase.
I’ve cut on numerous different NLEs and linear editing systems and I’ve found that it’s true that you can’t just try to — for example — port over the Media Composer keyboard to Premiere because you want to work with Premiere the way it is designed to work, not force it to work like another NLE.
CHURGIN: That’s what Christine impressed upon me. She said don’t be forced to get to just the Premiere keyboard. But put these things in places that you’re going to feel the most comfortable.
HULLFISH: And what are some of those things? What did you need to change from Avid? What did you need to use like Premiere?
CHURGIN: When you want to roll something that’s in a clip — it’s the S key for shuttle, or something. I use that. I use Gain. I use the A key to select things and move them to the right. Ripple just confuses me. I don’t use that much. I have a key that turns all my audio tracks on or off. I have a key programmed to turn my video tracks on and off. I do like that you can hold your locator over your timeline and go into maximum frame.
It’s been really fun to get back into Premiere and just get better at it. I moved the button to play the cut right next to my JKL keys and mark in and out. I like in Premiere that you can zoom in and out with the plus and minus keys instead of having to hold down a modifier like in Avid. I do a tremendous amount of finessing of volume and using keyframing and rubberbanding of audio and I really like the volume key in Premiere for that. I know Avid has something new that’s like it It’s been intensely satisfying to have learned it and having worked in it.
HULLFISH: The other interesting thing is that I worked with a Premiere editor on the Avid feature I’m cutting and when I was teaching him Premiere, he said that those methods changed the way he cut in Premiere. Now we’re both developing keyboards that are a strange hybrid of Avid and Premiere so we can jump back and forth between the two easier without compromising either. The trick is to not lose the best parts of Avid when in Avid or the best parts of Premiere when in Premiere.
You were talking about film doctoring — taking over somebody else’s edit. When you do that, are you starting every scene from scratch again or are you just looking at the problem areas?
CHURGIN: It depends on the project. Some films you have to. I did a doctor job earlier this year and the approach to one of the characters I felt was totally wrong. I went in and recut a lot of the character-driven scenes. Some of the more action-oriented things I didn’t touch at all. They were really well done. But I really needed to restructure the approach to one of the characters. So for that, I went back to dailies. There was another where I just really needed to cut it down. That’s just a lack of experience of a younger editor. That’s why editing is a process.
HULLFISH: Exactly. You were talking about approach early on and I wanted to know — since you did come from a KEM background. When you are cutting a scene, are you going back to the bins are you using a KEM roll as a source. Are you cutting the KEM down to tighter selects? How are you building your scenes?
CHURGIN: I mostly keep my clips intact. Sometimes I will create select rolls. I don’t cut using a KEM roll as a source. I need markers because of all this keep rolling. I scroll through the KEM roll, but I don’t use it as a source. Since I use icon view (or Frame or thumbnail view) I organize my bins and look at the pictures to see what the coverage is.
HULLFISH: Do you arrange them in a certain way that helps you?
CHURGIN: Oh yeah. It starts at the top left side and it starts with the master and then medium wides. I organize it kind of like a KEM roll. I have all one side of one character and then I’ll have all of their sizes and then after that, I will have all the sizes of someone else. I also separate out the pickups. If the shot really starts much later in the scene I’ll place it lower in the bin, so you really get a sense of how the scene was shot. Having a script supervisor is incredibly helpful. That’s what my assistant will rely on when they lay the bin out. Then I often will start moving clips around in the bin. I rely on that bin a lot as a reference.
HULLFISH: For me, both of the projects I did in Premiere were done in Premiere at the request of the director. Was David editing at all with you? Why would he care what you cut on?
CHURGIN: There were certain things that he wanted to sort of mull over, and as an editor, you know that sitting one-on-one with the material and the machine is very intimate. You become very intimate with the material and how to move it around. So there were certain things that David wanted to mull over — play with — and then he would hand it off to me. He likes to do more
‘montagey” kinds of things than the bread-and-butter, sit-down dialogue scenes.
I don’t think he had any interest in cutting a six-minute dialogue scene. He’s an editor in its own right, so and that’s really wonderful for me because pictures speak louder than words and he can show me certain things that are just easier to show.
HULLFISH: Did you use the collaborative tools that are now in Adobe?
HULLFISH: Wonderful talking to you.
CHURGIN: Thanks. Nice talking to you too.
To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.